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When Samuel de Champlain - the Father of Canada, as the grade-school teachers used to say - had to sell the Cardinal de Richelieu on sticking with the floundering colony of Quebec, he dangled the lure of a trade bonanza before France's all-powerful backroom boy.

"These fresh discoveries," he wrote in The Vo yages to Western New France, Called Canada (1632), "have led to the project of forming there these colonies, which, though at first of little account, nevertheless, in course of time, by means of trade, will equal the states of greatest kings."

Champlain was putting one over on the Cardinal and all the other important and otherwise-engaged decision makers in far-away France. The survival of the bleak habitation that improbably turned into Canada depended on his enthusiastic deception: As a colony and a nation-in-training, Quebec was little short of a disaster. After Champlain first set foot on the town's imposing site 400 years ago this summer - on July 3, 1608 - he produced reams of praise for the potential of his settlement at the narrowing of the St. Lawrence, but little in the way of what hard-nosed business backers would call "results."

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Several decades after the colony's scurvy-ravaged founding, despite all of Champlain's self-promoting propaganda and frequent trips back to France to reassure anxious investors, barely 200 people called Quebec home. They had just endured an embarrassing interlude in which a pair of English brothers seized the ragtag colony and expelled most of its starving inhabitants - and Champlain had the gall to tell the Cardinal that, "by means of trade," everything was going to be just fine?

Sure thing, if that elusive shortcut to China finally revealed itself, as Champlain confidently expected, somewhere upstream of Quebec. For you see, the relentlessly optimistic and wonderfully undaunted Champlain was quite mad, in the manner of explorers who leave the comforts of the highly rational mother country to wander the unknown Earth to its unlikely ends: He had this idea that Canada could pay its way not just by the beaver pelts that were being shipped off to Paris's most fashionable hatmakers (in that resource-rich, ingenuity-poor Canadian way), but also by the customs duties he could collect from all the sea-going traffic heading to and from the fabled land of la Chine, right past his well-placed settlements.

We can mock him for his sunny credulity now, as did the dark humorists of his own century who decided to nickname Montreal's unnavigable barrier of whitewater rapids "Lachine." But somehow his version of the story, his crazy dream of how the New World was going to work, has won out - if only through sheer persistence and occasional stretching of the truth.

When an urban-snowboarding World Cup event fills the narrow streets of downtown Quebec tonight, or the World Hockey Championships take over the city's Colisée Pepsi in May, or Céline Dion, in one of the culminating spectacles of Quebec's 400th-birthday celebrations, croons My Heart Will Go On on the Plains of Abraham, no less, later this summer - at some basic, primordial level, it is all about Samuel de Champlain.

But the Champlain fixed in our national imagination is nothing like the wild man who raced up the country's rivers by any means necessary, relentlessly interrogated natives about the land's mysteries and fought battles alongside them to gain their trust, held together a colony that probably had no right to survive and cleared off to France at every opportunity to sweet-talk men of influence into supporting his faltering dream.

Instead, the Champlain we think we know, an aristocratic role model, was trumped up by 19th-century mythmakers to bring a nation together and dignify us with a well-ordered pedigree.

His elevated social status, his air of majestic calm, his single-minded devotion to his proto-Canadian colonists and even his familiar face are all romantic lies.

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The true Champlain is a man who's obsessed with finding a route to China by way of the St. Lawrence, with the help of the natives who know the country intimately. But to realize his dream, he has to persuade the uninterested and the disbelieving across France that there's a fortune to be made in the raw materials of the fancy-hat trade, for the Europeans had wiped out their native beavers and had grown used to making their felt with vastly inferior wool. It's up to Champlain to make the connection between a luxury trade in Europe and the riches that might well accrue to those bold enough to invest in a marginal settlement on the edge of a remote and savage continent. He's an explorer by temperament, stuck in the day job of a hustler.

"China was his driving force," says University of British Columbia historian Timothy Brook. "Furs are a great windfall to pay off his backers, a convenient way to finance his project of looking for salt water. Merchants just wanted quick profits, but he was quite brilliant at keeping these people on the hook while carrying out his explorations."

In Quebec's anniversary celebrations, the sales pitch now is for tourism rather than beaver pelts - at the age of 400, ancient Quebec is trying to waylay some of the wanderlust that will otherwise end up in the remodelled China of the 2008 Olympics. Thus, in the odd way of modern commemoration, the past is almost nowhere to be found. Apart from a few dress-up recreations that have already been criticized for their inaccuracies, the dim ancestral memories from the Quebec of Champlain's time have been deliberately forgotten in favour of a celebration that is more forward-looking and eager to please, more representative of the way a dynamic metropolis wants to be seen by the world in 2008.

Champlain, being a man who was well ahead of his time, at least when it came to eluding the old prejudices, might have understood. And he certainly would have felt vindicated, assuming he ever had any doubts that his dream would come true.

"Champlain was, I think, the first patriot," says Conrad Heidenreich, professor emeritus of geography at York University who is just finishing (with Dr. Janet Ritch) the first volume of a new translation of Champlain's extensive writings. "He was someone who saw the huge potential of Canada and worked very hard to establish a presence here amid much apathy, because Canada did not lend itself to get-rich-quick schemes."

That may have been our salvation as a country, in the end. Gold and silver do bad things to people, as the Spanish and Portuguese had proved in their highly devastating resource-grabs to the south of Champlain's modest habitation. To the explorers who passed through Canada on sail-by visits prior to Champlain's arrival, the wild country offered little more than cod, whale blubber, animal pelts and a motley collection of B-list minerals including quartz and iron pyrite - "false as a Canadian diamond" was the knowing snub back in the day. The Canadian winter would prove to be a much more demanding test of an explorer's better nature than the tropical heat that enabled so much Spanish and Portuguese inhumanity, and yet more productive of the steady co-operative values that nation-building requires - provided you survived.

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"He realized how weak he was," says John Ralston Saul, fresh from a 400th-anniversary conference at the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, where the scholarly talk was all about how 17th-century France had no great interest in Champlain's Canada. "His instructions were to subjugate the native people, but he knew that in order to survive, he had to treat them not just as his equals, but as his superiors."

So the founding motif of Canada, if you like, and a New World concept if ever there was one, is about figuring out how to coexist - Champlain becomes the Father of Multiculturalism, the man who immediately recognizes that in the chaotic newness of a globalizing world, you can live together better not just despite your differences, but because of them.

Number 1 dad

Father of Canada, Father of Multiculturalism, Precursor of Céline Dion - for a man who could barely keep a small settlement going, that's one busy progenitor. Champlain has been given credit over the centuries for accomplishing so much and has been loaded with so many school-textbook virtues that he starts to sound more like one of those busybody Greek mythological heroes and less like a real man worth believing in.

Writing in Champlain: The Birth of French America about the endless number of monuments erected to Champlain's achievements in the late 19th and early 20th century - a time when weighty bronze statues were thought better tribute than hockey championships - the Quebec historian Patrice Groulx catalogued some of the things the French explorer had been credited with founding: Canada, French Canada, Christianity in Canada, bilingualism, Quebec both city and province, Acadia (where his expedition's first settlement was established in 1604), European civilization in Ontario (because he kept badgering the Ontario natives for the salt-water route to China and they got him to fight their wars in return), good France-United States relations, cartography (he was an outstanding mapmaker by the standards of his time) and agricultural colonization.

He has even been crowned king of conviviality: The famous Order of Good Cheer, or l'Ordre de Bon Temps, was devised to help the Acadia settlers survive a grim winter in good spirits, and is now awarded by Tourism Nova Scotia to anyone who spends three days in the province - which by all rights should make Champlain the Father of Hokey Maritime Marketing Gimmicks.

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Anniversary celebrations need their icons, of course, but this is still a lot to live up to. And when you start to look for the real Champlain beneath all the statuesque gilding, the story of our history becomes much more challenging. The reason we can say so much about Champlain, it seems, is because we know so little - an odd thing to discover about a man whose collected writings fill six volumes in the Champlain Society edition published in the 1920s and 1930s.

"If he has been so prominent," says a skeptical John A. Dickinson of the University of Montreal, "it is certainly because he blew his own horn more than his contemporaries by publishing accounts of his travels."

Conrad Heidenreich is less inclined to view Champlain's writings as that of a self-promoter: "What they do is promote Canada … They are really propaganda to encourage investment in what could be a valuable colony." But he's still surprised at how little is revealed. "I have never read anyone who wrote so much about his life's work who says so little about himself. He says nothing about his parents, his schooling, his wife, his thoughts. We don't even know where he was born. What I can tell you about him is almost all circumstantial, extrapolated from his actions and what others said about him."

It becomes easy to impose a country's wishes and desires on a man who managed to be so evasive. Champlain, it turns out, was largely unheralded until the 19th century, when he was suddenly called upon to give some historical underpinning to the emerging pride of the Québécois and to act as a humanistic forerunner of the French colonial adventures in Africa and Asia.

And this is where we encounter one of the more bizarre elements in the ever-evolving story of the father of Canada: All those portraits of him looking suitably thoughtful and paternal and agreeably humane? All those lavish paintings commissioned by legislatures, textbook publishers and patriotic insurance companies that show the fancy-dressed aristocrat creating the historical inevitability of Quebec like the born leader he was, always with native people in tow, their degree of subservience variable according to the spirit of the times? All those images are suspect.

Champlain wasn't an aristocrat - the high-born "de" in his name was added later. Nor was he the master planner of the New France experience: Historians who aim to see through the Champlain myth give more credit these days to people like Champlain's boss Pierre du Gua de Monts, who owned the trade monopoly that made setting up shop in New France an attractive investment, and therefore had to raise the money and fend off the rivals who saw him cutting into their beaver-pelt profits (for that's all Canada seemed good for, on the French business side).

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Du Gua de Monts was a player, in a way that Champlain wasn't. He also possessed the kind of Eurocentric mind that saw value in bringing back a moose to the court of Henri IV to astonish the children of the upper classes, and to import a native birchbark canoe, which, notes Quebec historian Jean-Yves Grenon, "was paddled up the Seine in Paris with great pomp." All this at a time when Descartes was just a schoolboy, when the palace at Versailles was just a figment in the mind of the future Louis XIII. It must have been quite a splendid sight.

Champlain was merely the operations manager, the man on the spot, the guy who was preoccupied with paddling the same kind of birchbark canoe in the places where it truly belonged - shooting the rapids at Montreal, say, or travelling with a native attack force in accordance with the tough terms of a trade alliance that tolerated the existence of French settlements in what could otherwise be a highly hostile territory.

He was a seemingly ordinary, provincial, hard-working menial who through sheer diligence and persistence and daring had risen to the point where he became a trusted informant of the king and the lieutenant of Cardinal Richelieu, the most powerful political figure in France. "Imagine a commoner representing a Bourbon monarch and Cardinal Richelieu as de facto governor of a colony," says Prof. Heidenreich.

Forgive us simple, uninquisitive Canadians if we prefer to mythologize this man as our forerunner.

On the face of it

The problem at the mythological level is trying to discern the point where wishes and dreams give way to outright fraud. It hardly seems to matter now if an insecure Champlain glorified his name with a "de," or that he had a tendency to overlook his predecessors in Quebec - Jacques Cartier, for example, who made his way up the St. Lawrence to Montreal in 1535 and spent the winter at the site of Quebec - so he could more convincingly start a colony from scratch.

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But what do we do with those pictures and portraits, and the man they purport to represent? He simply doesn't exist. Every image of Champlain, every heroic statue and monumental fresco and benevolent textbook illustration, is an outright lie, a fable for children or for a country stuck in a perpetual childhood state.

We know this now - if we choose to know it - because clever scholars wondered why there suddenly seemed to be an outbreak of Champlain portraiture in the 19th century. They discovered that the stolid face purporting to be our great man was lifted directly from a 1654 engraving of an unpleasant character named Michael Particelli d'Emery, superintendent of finance under Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Wanting a persuasive image of Quebec's founder, some fraudsters in the early 1850s reproduced the face of this soft, smug bureaucrat, substituted a fanciful background sketch of a well-ordered Quebec settlement for a formal French garden, and voilà - a hero for the ages.

Montreal art historian Dénis Martin has taken pleasure in collecting the gushing reactions to this newfound icon by leading Quebec thinkers who had finally found the face to go with their own patriotic visions: "There is no one better than Champlain to bear the most majestic thoughts on a most serene face," wrote Father Henri-Raymond Casgrain in 1864. "Champlain had a beautiful face, a noble and military bearing and a vigorous constitution," observed historian François-Xavier Garneau, "which placed him in a position to resist all fatigue of the body and the mind that he faced in his rough career."

Prof. Heidenreich has a different response: "That damned picture makes him look like Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame."

With a legacy like this, you can almost see why the organizers of the Quebec 400 celebrations threw up their hands in exasperation and summoned Céline to centre stage. And you can start to appreciate the blunt dismissal by René Lévesque: " Pas très stimulant, le fondateur" - not very exciting, our founder.

Champlain - and perhaps this should increase our national pride, if not national excitement - was not the kind of person who was likely to have his portrait painted in the early 17th-century, either by birth, professional status or inclination. There weren't all that many artist's studios in Quebec, and he didn't leave himself much time to sit still and look vice-regal.

Mapmaker, mapmaker

Champlain, as it happens, was considered something of a painter, but what that meant in his milieu was the ability to quickly sketch a likely harbour or an indigenous technique for hunting deer. The classic Champlain creative moment is when he persuades an Ottawa native leader (in the middle of nowhere, by Parisian standards) to draw a map of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay in charcoal on a piece of bark in exchange for an iron axe.

From such little things were fashioned Champlain's brilliant cartographic depictions of hitherto-unknown North America, all in aid of finding the salt-water seas that would lead to China. Thanks to his methodical zeal, of which we glimpse nothing in the faux portraits, the French had successfully explored the entire Great Lakes system and the Mississippi right down to the Gulf of Mexico by the time the English and Dutch first reached Lake Ontario in 1686.

But to a large degree, Champlain was a nobody who lived a quiet existence, at least by the odd standards of his time. Though he wrote non-stop accounts of his voyages throughout his life, these were not books that circulated widely. The bestselling and most widely distributed travel books of his period belonged to the fantastic-voyage genre - scarcely believable, romanticized descriptions of a world of wonders so different from the humdrum lives of ordinary, and even extraordinary Europeans. It's hardly surprising that Christopher Columbus carried a volume of Marco Polo's Travels when he crossed the Atlantic in search of China.

Champlain was more down-to-earth and even though he too was looking for China, he wasn't lured by the marvels of an imaginary paradise so much as fixated on the river-by-river details of how to get there - which made him the ideal candidate to make headway in unwelcoming Canada.

His first post on the voyages to New France (on a voyage that left port 405 years ago today) was simply as an "observer." He was the man who could be trusted to report back the facts as he saw them and he was relentlessly practical and wholly unornamented in his descriptions of harbours and landscapes, of native customs and the minutiae of day-to-day survival among these Frenchmen who tried so hard to separate themselves from the sedentary rhythms of their stay-at-home compatriots.

"He was good at describing what he could see," says Prof. Heidenreich. "The physical environment, the material culture of various native groups, sailing directions, the actions of those around him. He was poor at describing anything that depended on language, because he never learned to speak any native languages. Thus, anything he says about native religion, social organization or governance is suspect."

Modern anthropologists would have liked him to be more intellectually discerning, given how willing he was to spend time with the natives, how appreciative he was of their wisdom, and how accepting he was of their prior claims to this country. He was famously encouraging of intermarriage "in order that we be one people," and arranged for a number of his younger settlers like Étienne Brûlé to "go native" as a way of getting a handle on this awesome new continent.

Self-interest? Yes, but the native chiefs did likewise, sending their young people to France to meet with the king and learn the language of international trade. True, it was about money, or at least beaver pelts and iron axes. Yet given the way European exploration turned out in so many other places, Champlain's Canadian project looks rather more appealing.

Quebec, as a settlement, didn't amount to much, not in Champlain's time anyway. But as an idea, as an experiment in elevating the multiple-personality syndrome to the national level, it's had a pretty good run over 400 years.

"'We must figure out how to live together,'" intones John Ralston Saul. "Doesn't that sound familiar? Doesn't that sound like your country?"

John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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